Back in 1903, Orville Wright climbed into an aircraft he made with his brother Wilbur and took flight, becoming the first person to successful pilot an aircraft.
More than 70,000 spectators lined Baltimore’s Inner Harbor as 23 teams from around the world attempted to follow in the Wright brothers’ footsteps, or more appropriately their flight pattern, with their own homemade flying machines as part of the Red Bull Flugtag, Oct. 21.
Flugtag, which means “flying day” in German, began in Vienna, Austria in 1991. Since then, more than 35 Flugtag events have been held worldwide, with as many as 300,000 spectators on hand to witness the event.
The rules of Flugtag are simple. Teams design and build a human-powered craft, which can be no longer than 30 feet wide and must weigh less than 450 pounds (pilot included). One member of the team pilots the craft, while the other four push it off a 30-foot ramp overlooking the harbor.
Teams hope their engineering genius will enable their respective crafts to catch some air and soar gently down into the water, but more often than not, they quickly plummet and crash violently into the water. At any rate, teams are judged on three criteria: distance, creativity and showmanship.
In the hours leading up to the event, teams could be seen putting the finishing touches on their crafts. Have Feather, Will Fly, a group of first time Flugtag participants from Baltimore, touched up a few spots on their entry, a giant replica of Disney’s Dumbo, with a can of silver spray paint. Another local team, To The Max, sanded down the wings on their craft, Max’s Maryland Flyer, which resembled a crab when viewed from above.
Other teams spent the morning socializing with passersby and handing out cards with their team information on them in hopes of earning votes for the People’s Choice Awards. The members of Eyeballing a Win passed out purple beads in front of their One-eyed, One-horned, Flying Purple People Eater. Nearby, the members of Hot Doggin’ In Baltimore stood in front of their Oscar Flyer, a giant replica of the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile, and made balloon animals for the crowd.
Hot Doggin’ In Baltimore drove 20 hours in a U-haul truck from Shoreville, Minnesota just to compete in the event, which was their third Flugtag competition. They placed fifth in 2003 with their craft Flight of the Titanic and fourth in 2004 with a replica of the always-popular Goonies pirate ship. This year they strayed away from the movie theme and instead decided to construct a 20-foot-long wiener. Team member Matt Gibson claimed this year’s design took them “about seven minutes” to come up with, “but granted, a lot of that was social time.”
One on One with …
While Namond Brice never ventures too far out of Western Baltimore, Julito McCullum, the actor who plays him on the critically-acclaimed HBO series The Wire, found his way to the Inner Harbor to judge Red Bull Flugtag.
We caught up with him and got his thoughts on the “flying day” and tried our best to get him to reveal some secrets from season four.
How did you end up getting involved in Red Bull Flugtag?
Actually, there is this lady who did craft on the set of The Wire who saw me at the premiere and thought I would be good to judge it, so I came and helped her out because I love Baltimore. I didn’t know what Flugtag was, but now I do and it’s cool.
Do you actually live in Baltimore?
I live in Brooklyn, New York.
The Wire has wrapped up filming now, so did you come down just for this?
Yeah, I came down just for this. She’s a very nice lady, she asked me to do this and I like the people here, so I came and did it.
Who was your favorite team today? Who do you think did the best?
I liked Jump the Shark, they did very well. And the Purple People Eaters, they did good too.
As a judge, what exactly were you looking for?
I was looking for creativity, I was looking for the distance – the speed, the momentum they had and how entertaining they were.
So did you have a good time today?
Yes, I had a very good time. I want to thank everybody.
Of course, we have to ask you about The Wire. Can you tell us anything that is coming up?
Just expect a lot of good acting and for everybody who has their thoughts about The Wire and think they know what’s going to happen, it’s the complete opposite, so don’t think anything because it’s just going to hurt your feelings.
Are there big things in store for your character?
He’s going to go the opposite of where everybody thinks he’s going. He’s going through a lot of tough times and you’ll just see his life.
The seasoned Flugtag veterans knew what it was like to launch their craft from the top of that 30-foot ramp. Team member Karl Hawkinson, who piloted on of their previous entries, said, “It’s that split second right before you go off the edge that you realize this could be the last thing you ever see.”
And Gibson added, “You try to get support from your friends and they are the ones pushing you out.”
In the end, their craft, which they transformed from the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile into a glider before pushing it off the edge of the ramp, traveled 51 feet. Unfortunately for the hot dog lovers, that wasn’t enough to earn them a top three finish.
Another Flugtag veteran was the Comeback Kids’ Kirk Marshall, a teacher from Bloomsburg Area High School in Pennsylvania who was visably nervous leading up to the start of the event. The teacher worked with his engineering students to construct Safe Busters, a bank robbery-themed entry.
Marshall, who had piloted crafts built by his students in two previous Flugtag events, said it’s a matter of trust.
“I didn’t build this all myself,” Marshall said. “I’m relying on others and trusting that they followed all of the instructions we set up.”
In 2003, Marshall and his students finished first in Flugtag New York and in 2004 at Flugtag Cleveland, they finished in second place behind Rover’s Flying Glory, who set the United States Flugtag distance record at 78 feet.
Since Cleveland, Marshall and his engineering students studied other entries and modified their design.
“As we started watching and seeing what worked, we tried to incorporate some of those winning designs,” Marshall said. “We’re not big into copying someone else’s idea, but if something worked for them and we can make it work for us, then that’s a pretty smart idea.”
On paper, the team from Bloomsburg Area High School seemed to be a favorite, but it was not meant to be. A strong headwind caught their craft as they left the ramp and Safe Busters only traveled a disappointing 42 feet.
But, for Marshall, the result wasn’t important. The time spent building the craft after school and the lessons the kids walked away with were all that mattered to the 20-year teaching veteran.
“If they’ve learned something, then it’s all worth it,” Marshall said.
Other teams weren’t in it for the learning experience; they were there to have a good time. Almost Heaven, a group of whitewater rafting guides from Morgantown, West Virginia, decided to enter their craft, appropriately called the Firkin Flyer, after a night of drinking. Their craft was designed to look like a firkin barrel used to make mead.
“To come up with the design, it only took us a night’s worth of drinking,” revealed pilot Jake Powers. “To build it took us about a week’s worth of drinking. We come up with some good ideas when we’re drunk.”
Another team, Retro References, came up with a design that was uniquely Baltimore. Their craft, the Beehive Bomber, resembled a beehive hairdo with retro glasses in honor of legendary Baltimore filmmaker John Waters.
“Basically, we are all native Baltimorons. We just love John Waters,” said team member Erica Meadows, a drag queen who performs at the Hippo on Charles Street. “We’re inspired by big hair, beehives.”
Meadows agreed to enter the competition after a friend forwarded a message team pilot Amy Barrett posted on Craigslist looking for teammates. Meadows signed on because “I love doing unique and different things.”
Before launching off the flight deck, the Retro References declared their craft “the biggest hair in Baltimore, hun.” The Beehive Bomber, while perhaps the most stylish craft, wasn’t the most aerodynamic. It traveled just 42 feet before landing in the water. Big hair does not get big air.
Other teams crafts didn’t even make it that far. The members of Have Feather, Will Fly met with tragedy when their Dumbo craft got caught on the edge of the ramp and ending up hanging above the water. However, since the distance the pilot travels, not the distance of the craft itself, is what is officially recorded, the team was credited with traveling six feet.
It was pretty much impossible to guess which teams or which crafts would be successful. Teams like Comeback Kids and Bulgarian team Bugging the Competition were derailed by wind. Others, like the New Freedom, Pennsylvania’s Chicks Dig The Long Ball and the Fredericksburg, Virgina Funky Family’s Intergalactic Funk Brigade UFO unraveled before even making it off the flight deck.
Some crafts exceeded expectations, like the fire department from Flushing, New York’s craft, F-10-75, which was shaped like a giant fireman’s helmet. The helmet, perhaps fueled by the patriotism of the crowd, traveled an impressive 75 feet, just three feet shy of the distance record set in Cleveland.
In the end, the team that made it the farthest was Petersburg, New York’s Better Than a Poke in the Eye, and their craft Victims of Soi-cumstance. The team, which was paying tribute to The Three Stooges, actually received loud boos from the audience while doing their less-than-impressive pre-flight shtick. But, they quickly turned the tide when their craft traveled 81 feet, setting a new U.S. distance record and helping the team to finish first overall in the competition.
“I knew it was going to fly well,” said team member Dave “The Rookie” Gauthier as the team celebrated after the event. “I just didn’t know how far.”
The Wright brothers could have said the same thing on that fateful December day back in 1903.
Written by Joel Murphy, October 2006. Photos by Brian Murphy. For more information on Red Bull Flugtag, visit their official site.